Whose Government?: The Politics of “Portgate”

Ken AshfordBush & Co., Congress, Election 2006, War on Terrorism/TortureLeave a Comment

Bluememe, via Glenn Greenwald, deconstructs Bush’s language:

Bush took the rare step of calling reporters to his conference room on Air Force One after returning from a speech in Colorado. He also stopped to talk before television cameras after he returned to the White House."I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions about whether or not our country will be less secure as a result of this transaction," the president said. "But they need to know that our government has looked at this issue and looked at it carefully."

Got that? There’s Congress on the one hand. And what Bush considers "our Government" on the other. And never the twain shall meet.

Greenwald also points out (along with Atrios) that the GOP-dominated Congress is unabashedly hypocritical.  When it comes to the NSA wiretapping, many Republicans stand by the notion that Article II of the Constitution gives the President unitary power in the area of national security.  But many of these same Republicans are now seeking emergency legislation to block the Bush’s UAE port deal . . . in the name of national security.  Go figure.

I’m still largely on the fence about this.  It seems clear that port maintenance is often outsourced to foreign companies, so this isn’t a biggie unless you take the xenophobic position that all Arab companies are inherently bad.  It should be noted that the UAE is within the "coalition of the willing" and has sent troops to aid us in Iraq.  Furthermore, as Kevin Drum points out, the workers will be American union members, and security matters gets handled by the people you would expect to be doing it (Coast Guard, etc.)

On the other hand, this particular company is owned by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, a family that has met with bin Laden himself, as late as 1999.   They refuse to recognize Israel, but they recognized the Taliban. 

Even more troubling to me is the apparent ease with which this contract was granted.  The law requires a 45-day investigation into deals of this kind, a review which apparently never took place.  Then, there are allegations of quid-pro-quos, and the undeniable argument echoed everywhere about "why American companies can’t do this".  And also, is the UAE even good at this?  (See, e.g., Washington Post – 2/17/2002: "Al Qaeda’s Road Paved With Gold — Secret Shipments Traced Through a Lax System In United Arab Emirates")

One thing is for sure: while the deal may or may not be unsafe, the cause for concern certainly is understandable.   The Rude Pundit illustrates his concern in this crass, yet logical, way:

Let’s say, and why not, that you’re a victim of a crime, where a guy breaks down the doors to your house, wrecks the fuck out of your living room, strangles your cockatiel, and shits on the floor. You know who did it. It’s your neighbor who hated hearing your goddamn cockatiel start chirpin’ at sunrise everyday. But the cops can’t find your neighbor. Now let’s say you hire a decorator to come in to refurbish your shat on, fucked up living room. Let’s say you discover that the decorator’s assistant is your neighbor’s cousin. Sure, you can be assured over and over that he only saw your neighbor at large family gatherings and that he doesn’t know where the fucker is, but, c’mon, you gonna feel comfortable with that dude in your house every day? Would you be wrong to fire him?

My concern is the same as that of Publius:

I’m more afraid of the rogue actor. My fear is that giving Dubai control of the ports will give the company access to a host of extremely valuable information about our security procedures even if that information is just basic shipping logistics (where stuff comes in, when it’s inspected, what isn’t inspected, etc.). If the company has ready access to all this information, it only takes one disgruntled employee to share information in a way that could be harmful.

Conservative James Lileks says the same thing:

I’m not worried that some evil emir is putting a pinky to his monocled eye, and saying Mwah! at last I have them where I want them! I’m worried about the guy who’s three steps down the management branch handing off a job to a brother who trusts some guys who have some sympathies with some guys who hang around some rather energetic fellows who attend that one mosque where the guy talks about jihad 24/7, and somehow someone gets a job somewhere that makes it easier for something to happen.

Whether or not this is realistic concern is anybody’s guess.  But the politics of the "Portgate" "scandal" may be more important that determination of whether there actually is a bonafide scandal.  To that end, Greenwald makes another salient observation:

[T]here is a sweet poetic justice in watching all of this unfold. Having spent the last four years squeezing enormous political benefits out of cynical fear-mongering over Arab terrorists and despicable accusations that his political opponents are aiding and abetting terrorists by opposing his foreign policies, Bush now finds himself crying victimhood over what he is depicting as these very tactics. One reaps what one sows, and all of that.

True, but the real interesting thing is how this plays out politically.  Lileks again:

It’s remarkably tone deaf. It’s possible that the Administration did some quiet polling, and asked the question “How much Arab control over American ports are you comfortable with,” and misinterpreted stunned silence as assent. It’s possible the Administration believed that this would be seen as outreach, an act of faith to solidify a Key Ally, and didn’t think there’d be much hubbub – but if that’s the case, it’s the best example of the Bubble Theory I’ve heard, and I’ve not heard much convincing evidence. Until now. The average American’s reaction to handing port control over to the UAE is instinctively negative, and for good reason. There are two basic reactions: We can’t do this ourselves? and We should trust them, why?

Facing re-election challenges, the last thing that Republicans need is to be outflanked by Democrats on national security issues.  Therefore, they need to oppose Bush on this.   The UAE deal is the wedge issue that Democrats have been wanting to see for a long time.

What, then, should be the Democrat’s move?  Should they exploit the scandal, even if (as more and more are arguing) the Dubai deal isn’t really a threat to national security?  Greenwald seems open to the question:

If Democrats have an opportunity to inflict serious political harm on the Administration and its enablers in Congress through a scandal which may not be truly meritorious but can be a potent political weapon (and I’m not saying that’s the case for Portgate – I’m simply posing this question hypothetically), ought Democrats do what Bush followers have done for the last 5 years — namely, use whatever instruments they can to politically harm the Administration, even if there is some cynicism involved in doing so – or ought they maintain higher and more intellectually honest standards and forego political gain if it means cynically exploiting a scandal?

As some have said, this may mean that we have to "become like Republicans" in order to defeat them.  Digby opines:

Sometimes I get criticism from my readers for suggesting that the Democrats must play on the same playing field as the Republicans. They say, "we shouldn’t become them." But I never suggest that the Democrats should lie, cheat or play dirty as the Republicans do. I suggest that they wise up and stop pretending that Republicans are anything but ruthless adversaries and adjust accordingly. They can be beaten with smart strategies, but not unless the Democrats internalize the connection between the nice men and women they are working with on capitol hill every day with the thugs they hire to get elected. They are all cogs in the same cutthroat political machine.

The UAE deal represents much more of a shake-up of the political landscape than a Harriet Miers  nomination.  It places both parties at crossroads.  On the whole, I think the shake-up bears well for Democrats.  There is no "win" in this for Democrats, but it seems clear that Bush can only lose, especially if he exercises his veto power and it gets overridden by the GOP-dominated Congress. 

My sense is that Democrats will benefit from the GOP crack-up over this, and there is no need to exploit the GOP division.  Don’t look the gift horse in the mouth — just ride it.